Wed, Feb

The topsy-turvy world of Tom English

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Ahead of a fine performance by Rangers at Ibrox last night, I noted with a smile my TV licence being renewed automatically by the BBC. It's been a while since I last checked the cost but at around £12 a month I think it still represents decent value. As much as Sky is perhaps my main source of TV nowadays (along with Netflix and Amazon Prime), I still enjoy a range of BBC productions - both on radio and TV, as well as digitally via the superb iPlayer. If you compare the cost to other subscription based providers, then I think the fee is still worth paying. Unfortunately, as a Rangers supporter, the value is becoming more and more difficult to justify.

First and foremost, despite the grand claims of BBC Sportsound's 2017/18 strapline of "Where there's Scottish Football, there's Sportsound", due to ongoing issues between the broadcaster and Rangers, coverage of our club doesn't match that of others. For those that don't know (and despite the claims of BBC Scotland when you contact them), their Senior Football Reporter Chris McLaughlin had his press privileges removed by Rangers due to some clearly conflicted reporting on sectarianism. Although he can still enter the ground and report as he pleases, BBC Scotland have since decided they'd rather not attend in any capacity so, if we use last night as an example, it will be almost an hour before they'll offer a very limited preview of the game and the post-match report is equally poor with minimal reaction from the match. Moreover, if you check their website match report, you'll get the bare facts of who scored and when.

However, despite the scarcity of their in-situ football coverage; there will usually be plenty for them to discuss on more controversial subjects - such as tax cases, alleged bigotry or the business practices of the club and its current chairman. When it comes to these issues, the organisation springs to life with Panorama investigations, panel discussions and phone-ins. Interestingly, these are not limited to Sportsound either but you'll find them right across their TV and radio output from Good Morning Scotland first thing in the morning, to their mid-day discussion programmes and flagship evening news. Meanwhile, on their website and social media, you'll find a range of analysis - with maximum negativity apparently their default position.

Once such example was from a fortnight ago. After the recent Supreme Court verdict whereby five law lords finally found in favour of HMRC in their long-running tax case v BDO (pp Rangers oldco/Murray International Holdings), the SPFL released a detailed statement which outlined the legal advice they received with respect to the Court's verdict. Within that advice, although Gerry Moynihan Q.C., Senior Counsel acknowledged the EBT scheme was "ultimately held to have been ineffective" he also concluded there was no evidence the "Oldco acted with less than the utmost good faith". As with the Court's judgement, Moynihan didn't reference any legal dubiety per se - quite simply Rangers erred in their tax obligations and tax was now found to be due on the ineffective schemes. To quote Lord Hodge's summary: “...there is no suggestion that any part of the transaction, which comprised the tax avoidance scheme, was a sham. The elements of the transaction (...) were all genuine and had legal effect, as the majority of the FTT held.”

Bizarrely, despite there being no discussion of illegality, for reasons known only unto themselves, the SPFL saw fit to suggest the Rangers oldco acted 'unlawfully' in their statement preamble. I believe the club remain angry over this incorrect assumption but, for the moment, have decided to let it lie as, with most other sensible stake-holders just want to move on and address more pressing issues within our national sport. However, for the avoidance of doubt, let me be clear: Sir David Murray's strategy to play fast and loose with Rangers' tax requirements will be the source of eternal embarrassment for our great club and its many fans. Further, his related decision - along with Lloyds Banking Group - to sell to Craig Whyte facilitated years of deceit whereby the club's reputation and history was placed in great danger. Within the last six years since that sale, Rangers Oldco was forced into an ongoing liquidation and the football club coerced into a five way agreement that cost it five years out of the top flight of Scottish football. As a club Rangers were humiliated time after time and have surely served their penance?

Unfortunately, this isn't enough for some. Former SPL Chief Executive Roger Mitchell who still contributes to various media platforms still demands contrition - though when it was pointed out to him on social media Malcolm Murray had already issued an apology in 2012 for the "distress, disruption and difficulty inflicted on the football community", Mitchell mocked the former Rangers chairman by asking if he was drunk at the time. Meanwhile, the incumbent SPFL CEO Neil Doncaster still welcomes further discussion with any and all fan groups on whether the organisation missed any opportunity in punishing Rangers. Not to be outdone, Stewart Regan at the SFA seems to open his door and email account to any conspiracy theorist going by recent laughable efforts by Celtic supporting bloggers to suggest Rangers and Dunfermline fixed matches to win league titles. We were told to move on in 2012/13 but suddenly every avenue is to be investigated to find more retrospective punishment. Where does it stop?

In that sense, one would surely be forgiven for thinking BBC Scotland's Chief Sportswriter could be the man to offer some sense. Tom English hails from Ireland and has written about Scottish sport for several years now - firstly at The Scotsman before moving to the BBC in 2014. Although English was never considered a friend of Rangers, whilst at the Scotsman, he seemed balanced enough and was one of few journalists to approach controversial subjects such as sectarianism and post-SDM Rangers with a degree of impartiality. Indeed, although Rangers have had problems with BBC Scotland's portrayal of the club over the last ten years (culminating in various fan protests at Pacific Quay), it was hoped English could apply his experience and neutrality to improve their coverage.

Unfortunately, just over three years into the job, the opposite has to be said. BBC colleagues like McLaughlin and Graham Spiers remain persona non grata at Ibrox and English is forced into interviews with former players to preview the new season - not least so he could get the chance to discuss EBTs. And, my goodness, discussing the 'unlawful' nature of EBTs is one of English's favourite subjects. In recent weeks, English has not only argued with Rangers supporters such as myself on how appropriate the use of unlawful is but also saw fit to lecture one of the UK's foremost authorities on UK tax legislation Jolyon Maugham QC.

In his arguments, English attempted to establish Rangers acted unlawfully with respect to EBTs (even using bizarre dictionary references). However, despite Maugham's reasoned responses along with the conclusions of the SPFL's QC and, of course, the five law lords of the Supreme Court, English insisted his 'experts' (whom he would not name) were enough for him to persevere with 'unlawful'. OK, that's his prerogative and we're all entitled to our opinion but there certainly seemed an obvious lack of concession on his part that he could be wrong. In fact, English was and continues to be mocking of anyone who suggests that's the case.

Fast forward to this week and, ironically English's former employer The Scotsman had to make an important correction within their publication. On the 27th July, their paper carried a story by freelancer Ewing Grahame whereby he stated that "their (Rangers) use of EBTs was definitively ruled to be unlawful by the highest court in the land". Upon complaint over this erroneous use of unlawful, the publication stated "We'd like to clarify that EBTs are not unlawful or illegal". Obviously Rangers supporters nodded in approval and passed this onto English's social media account. English quickly replied, denoting he agreed with The Scotsman's correction but smugly inferred the newspaper wasn't actually agreeing with the complainant but suggested it was merely making the obvious point that EBTs themselves were lawful.

Now, if any fair-minded person read The Scotsman's correction, the context of the clarification seemed more specific than that given the article in question was directly referenced. Unconscious bias aside - namely rush to judgements based on biases influenced by our background - it seemed clear The Scotsman agreed with the Supreme Court judgement that Rangers use EBTs was indeed lawful, if liable for tax. However, for the benefit of doubt, I got in touch with the newspaper deputy editors to check and they confirmed this was the case and insisted there was no playing with words. In fact, it's only my opinion, but I got the impression said editors were rather angry with their former employee's attempts to muddy the water and embarrass them.

With the above in mind, and if we consider English's regular rejection of Dave King's fit and proper status juxtaposed with his preference to completely ignore the apparent business indiscretions of Dermot Desmond, it seems fair to question Tom English's integrity when it comes to aspects of his reporting on Scottish football. Interestingly, in 2010, whilst at The Scotsman, English published an article on the level of patronising and insulting punditry at the BBC during the World Cup. Within it he questioned the contribution of various commentators and asked if their pay was justified. English concluded:

"There are many days ahead when our intelligence will be insulted by 'expert analysts' who speak to us like simpletons who've just staggered home from the pub. We could do a lot worse than hitting the mute button from here on in. Or getting the commentary off the radio."

Salient words indeed. What a pity we're still forced to pay for them. Isn't that right, Tom?

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